Creating amidst crises can either be cathartic or impossible. My crises actually started before the current novel coronavirus. In early February, my husband was suddenly diagnosed with a brain tumor, and within a week he had surgery to have it removed. Rare, but benign, I guess you could say we won the brain tumor lottery. Could I create anything during a month of worry and caregiving. Not at all.
Getting your creative groove back is something I have spent some time considering. Read some suggestions here. A month after his surgery, I spent time looking at old work in my flat files, and came across a multiple block woodcut I created while a student at Indiana University in 2009. Our prompt was another worrying pandemic — the novel H1N1 virus, nicknamed Bird Flu.
We have so many ways to learn new things. We can watch Youtube videos to learn how to fix our cars. We can watch cooking shows to improve our culinary techniques. Watching other people being creative can be stimulating or calming. But is it actually enriching? At what point should we stop watching and start doing?
What does your fear look like? Does your inner critic have a face? What does that nagging voice say in your ear — making you doubt your current and past choices? Certainly everyone faces these types of experiences, but for artists, it can be a daily struggle.
Taking Big Magic to heart through writing
I’m taking a six-week class looking at Big Magic, the book by Elizabeth Gilbert. Gilbert examines creativity as an everyday activity that everyone can embrace, not a rarified talent only bestowed on a few. In our first session, our facilitator Kim Evans, asked us to consider what our fear looks like — what does it say to us and what adjectives would describe it. We even drew pictures of our fear. Here’s my funny caricature:
We were also asked to write a letter — either to our fear, or from our fear to ourselves. I chose the later. My fear expressed concern that I lack a BFA in Fine Art, let alone an MFA. The fact that my art creation could not support our family also reared its ugly head. Finally, my fear posited that it was possible I would become a curly white-haired woman who just talked to her cats. With the exception of the last worry, most of these worries are very similar to those that my young adult children are experiencing as they leave my home and make their way in the world. My advice of them is to try their hardest to embrace the thing that interests them, and see what happens. It is harder to take one’s own advice.
When fear shows up in the studio
In my studio, I’ve had a very different kind of fear show up. I’m working on a very large linocut (25 x 40 in,) and I found myself paralyzed as I tried to make my starting color choices. The large paper (30 x 44in) costs over $9.00 per sheet, making printing on my 20 pieces of paper in the edition suddenly a costly decision. I struggled all of Friday with thumbnails of how I could possibly begin. Because I use transparency, this first color sets the entire composition.
I finally had to put the sketchbook away for the weekend. Monday morning, I simplified my approach, took a deep breath, and began. I have to trust that my previous experiences can inform this new work, and it will be OK. The fearful, critical voice must be drowned out and the printing commence.
After five hours of printing with this huge block of linoleum today, I’m exhausted, but I’ve quieted most of my fears. I still may become a curly, white-haired woman who spends most of her day talking only to her cats. I guess I’m OK with that.
A Big Magic workshop in July
If you think you’d like to work with a group on the topics of creative living — and yes, fear — Kim is offering a workshop in Asheville, NC this July. Here are the details.
Finding your next great idea — or maybe you would call it connecting with your muse — can be difficult. I wonder if Georgie O’Keefe had self-doubts about her transition from dark cityscapes to colorful desert landscapes. I’m still mulling over what to do with my recent eclipse study, but have been recently captivated by the topographic map bookmarks we made at my recent Open Studio.
I created the drawing for the second block from a real topo map of the Red River Gorge in Kentucky. I have hiked this area which is part of the Daniel Boone National Forest. It is filled with unexpected formations, from gorges to natural bridges, all noted by these squiggling lines. Back in my studio, most of my work does not depend on line work specifically, but I continue to be drawn to these topo lines.
Topo maps are helpful and beautiful…
We have a collection of hiking maps from our travels in North America and Europe. In our recent trip to the Pyrenees, my husband and I relied heavily on a topo map to get us safely down from an exposed trail during an afternoon thunderstorm. The lines told us that yes, the scree-filled avalanche chute was in fact the way down.
I find these lines aesthetically pleasing as well. After the Open Studios tour, I now have time to get back to work, and kept thinking about these lines. The bookmarks we created were colorful and visually active, but perhaps not complex enough for larger work. This is where Big Magic comes in…
Big Magic is essential reading
If you are a creative person of any type, you should get a copy of Big Magic and read it. I refer to mine so frequently that I don’t loan it out to anyone. In the book, Elizabeth Gilbert, author of several books including Eat, Pray, Love, discusses how to live sanely as a creative person. One of my favorite parts considers how we mistreat our creativity in our quest for fame or remuneration.
“But to yell at your creativity, saying, “You must earn money for me!” is sort of like yelling at a cat; it has no idea what you’re talking about, and all you’re doing is scaring it away, because you’re making really loud noises and your face looks weird when you do that.” (Gilbert. Big Magic, 154)
I am guilty at being unkind to my creativity when I demand to know before I start whether my next endeavor will be worthy of a frame — or a possible entry for a prominent show — or my next sale. When I yell, so to speak, nothing goes well.
So I’m back in the studio with two blocks, pushing topographical lines into new contexts. Will it work out? I have no idea. But grooving to my Spotify throwback list and rolling our fresh ink made for a memorable day. And there was no yelling…
This blog post was delayed by the winter creative blahs. My usual blog writing afternoon found me stretched out on a sunny built-in couch, staring up at bare branches waving in the wind.
Later, another linocut artist trapped in a cold, snowy studio asked on-line: “How do you get through the doldrums?” So whether you are trapped in the snowy northern hemisphere, or the overheated southern, here are my best suggestions for getting through times when you just don’t feel creative.
Doing nothing might be best
Like an athlete, sometimes creative people don’t need to push, but to rest. Perhaps your mind needs rest, in the form of a nap or time spent not thinking about your current creation.
Get out of your studio! Get in your studio! These push-pull messages are always with me as I decide how to spend my art time. We have been inside for most of June, as my area of the country has had record rainfall. As the sun began to peek out, I quickly kidnapped my husband from his nearby university office and we went out to the Indiana Limestone Symposium held on the grounds of the Bybee Stone Company in nearby Ellettsville, Indiana.
One of may favorite things to do, when I am not carving a new linoleum block, is watch other people creating — especially those who work in 3-D media. I find ceramicists and glass blowers fascinating. I have lived in Indiana’s limestone belt for over twenty years, and I wanted to see how stone carvers coax life out of our fossilized sea beds.
Amy Brier uses an air chisel to free this figure from the limestone.
Amy Brier, a co-founder of the annual event, showed us a technique where she used an air chisel to sculpt a figure. She explained that as she is working on an area, she is seeing each individual line as it makes its way around the figure. Her chisel is actually more gentle on the stone than a hand chisel and hammer, and the air forces the chips away from her. (Amy was very quick to mention this, as she insists that all of her students and those doing hand carving wear safety glasses.)
As she carved, the noise from the compressor was loud, but the carving looked surprisingly soft. The grey stone only hints at the entire ecosystem that lived and died in this place, giving us the material that we have used to create structures both grand and mundane. Amy talks in depth about her love of limestone in her Bloomington Tedx talk. She also designed the world’s largest anatomically correct brain that now resides outside Indiana University’s Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences where my husband works.
Visit this sculptural brain at the Indiana University Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at 10th & Woodlawn in Bloomington. Visit it after dusk for an interactive light show.
I chatted with site director Delaine Gerstbauer about the challenges of deciding what to carve, and what to allow the viewer’s own visual system to complete. When is an incompletion a hint of something else, and when is it an error? This is a question I ask myself all the time. Too much and the work is to literal or static. Too little and the entire image is confusing and frustrating.
How much of “anything” should be carved away? Wht cn yr brn rd nywy?
I not only observed seasoned stone carvers at this event, but I also saw a noted neuroanatomist and a beloved local singer/songwriter, each lost in the creation and destruction of the carving. I decided since they were clearly there to stretch their creativity, they didn’t need me outing them, or acting like a groupie. I doubt I will ever have need of such anonymity, but I thought I would extend it to them.
One person I did chat with was glass artist Abby Gitlitz. I asked her about the differences between blowing and working her glass, as opposed to her hand sculpting a limestone block. She said that working in a different media helped her to get her creative juices flowing. We both wondered about the possibilities of combining her colorful glass with the quiet mat textures of the limestone.
Glass artist Abby Gitlitz uses a hand chisel to coax a form out of a limestone block.
Getting the creative juices flowing is so important, especially after you have worked very hard for a period of time. I’m taking baby steps with a new small linoleum block, and enjoying using my Iphone camera to capture images of inspiration. Perhaps next year I will schedule a few days at the Limestone Symposium and try my hand at relief carving in a whole new way.